“All of these fanatics were white.”

I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

There was one place I wanted to visit during our recent 48 hours in Paris. Well, there were a bunch of places I hoped to visit, but there was one place in particular I wanted to sit. The Café de Flore was, according to believable legend, one of James Baldwin’s regular writing spots. Baldwin’s essays have been important to me over the years; I recommend him before any other author to those wanting to understand what it means to be white in America. I wanted to sit in that cafe, while munching on a croissant, sipping an espresso, and imagining the expatriate hunched over his notebooks.

Maggie was gracious enough to get up early the morning after we arrived so that we could get to the cafe as it opened. It was a rainy morning, but the newstand next door sold the international edition of the Times and the awning was enclosed and heated, so we found a table and got comfortable.

It was great. Between the rain and the early hour, we seemed to be some of the only tourists in the place. We chatted and read and I thought about what Baldwin came to Paris looking for, a reprieve from the racism that plagued him in Harlem and anywhere he stepped foot in his country.

I was first exposed to this instinct to sojourn in Paris by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates when he used to blog for The Atlantic. I remember sitting in the living room of a friend’s cottage in rural Illinois, about as far from Paris in every way possible, reading his posts about that city.

And we are here now, and all around me is the incredible music of French. I walk into stores and bumble my way through. I take my family for le boeuf et frites and bumble through. I inhale a bottle of red wine with my wife, and stumble out. I walk into pharmacies with my son mishandling verbs, fumbling pronouns, wrecking whole grammars. And by my heel, I care not. It is not for them. It is for me. I know how we got here. I do not know when we may be called back.

This is when I fell for Coates and his writing. He wrote with urgency and conviction but also – and this continues to be a hallmark – with great humility. He was a man unashamed to admit what he didn’t know, hungry to learn and understand, especially those histories which make sense of those things which seem inevitable in this world but which, as Coates has shown us again and again, are not.

Not far from Café de Flore is a bookstore I wanted to visit. I’d forgotten this, but I must have first learned about Shakespeare and Company in one of Coates’ posts.

Two Saturdays ago, I visited the venerable bookstore Shakespeare and Company. It was a hot day. The store was small and stifling. A woman walked around handing out watermelon. I picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution and Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. I went upstairs, sat in a room with view of the street and I think even the river. Two things happened while I sat there. First, I fell in love with Primo Levi, an unoriginal event which nevertheless deserves (and shall receive) elaboration. Second, I decided that this room was perfect.

I walked into that bookstore looking for The Water Dancer, Coates’ first novel which had just been published. After scanning the tables of new releases and checking the fiction shelves, I went to the counter to ask, worried that the book hadn’t been released overseas yet. But the clerk walked me over to a table and handed me the book; I’d not recognized it because, here in Paris, it was a paperback with a different cover.

The book tucked under my arm, I made my way upstairs to Coates’ perfect room. He was right. I sat in an ancient armchair near that window and read the first chapter. It was inevitable that the shop cat would make his way over and jump onto my lap. Perfect.

I finished The Water Dancer earlier this week. I don’t read enough fiction so take this with a grain of salt: I really liked it. Coates has created a world full of detail and surprise. There’s much to notice even as the story pulls the reader forward. It’s full of sentences like this one, which Coates has coming from a fictionalized Harriet Tubman: “For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” That, as my pastor friends might say, will preach!

And then, toward the end, is this passage which made me think of Baldwin scribbling away at the Café de Flore and Coates and his family eating and drinking their way through the city. The narrator is describing a white woman, an important leader of the underground railroad.

All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of the goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave.

In recent weeks I’ve had two occasions, within the company of some African American friends, to notice this sort of vanity. There is a certain kind of white person who is committed to opposing racism and white supremacy. They have read many books on the topics and are conversant in the ideas and histories. And yet, as Coates writes, they love the fight against oppression more than they love those who’ve been oppressed. Like the white woman in this passage, they are fanatical and even effective. We surely need them in this work. And yet I can imagine that Baldwin disappeared into Paris to escape not just the scary racists but them, the fanatics, too.

And this, as one prone to fanaticism, is worth pondering.

Who killed Eric Garner?

A few years ago a member of our church was arrested and spent the day in jail. A lifelong resident of the neighborhood, this Black man had been standing on a street corner with some friends when Chicago Police rolled up. Very quickly they had him against a wall before placing him in handcuffs and driving away.

Why? I asked. They said I was selling loose cigarettes.

I thought about my friend today when the news broke that the New York police officer who choked Eric Garner into an asthma attack that ended in his death won’t be prosecuted by the Justice Department. Garner died, his faced pressed into the sidewalk, gasping for breath. “I can’t breathe.” Eleven times he told the officers who held him down that he was dying, that they were killing him. And then he was gone.

He’d been selling loose cigarettes.

Photo: Paul Silva

In a letter to his nephew in 1963, James Baldwin wrote that white people are, “in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.”

I’m thinking about Baldwin’s words of warning today because I’m remembering how my friend explained his day in police custody; it was, for him, an anticipated experience. Dangerous, yes. Potentially deadly. But also, a sort of expected tax on his African American reality. He understood that particular humiliation – hands against the wall, legs spread – to be part of the way of life under the power of those convinced of his inferiority.

I felt outraged for this man and his experience. He seemed to feel something different- a sense of the futility of convincing a nation that had long ago decided that his was an experience not worth understanding, an existence unworthy of our collective concern.

Eric Garner’s killer was not held accountable for the same reason so many other Black women and men who’ve suffered such obvious violence haven’t received the satisfaction of justice: in the eyes of this nation they do not deserve the dignity implicit to humanity. It’s not that they don’t see us, a friend told me the other day. She was responding to another example of white people erasing the voices and priorities of Black communities. It’s that they don’t believe we’re fully human.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was twenty-six years old when he was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965. Jackson had participated in a civil rights march and died trying to protect his mother from the trooper’s blows. Martin Luther King was called upon to eulogize Jackson from the pulpit of Zion Church in Selma. “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered him,” he reminded the community, “but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”

In her portrayal of that funeral, director Ava Duvernay has King demand with righteous fury, “Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?” It’s the question honest people will ask about Eric Garner and the countless others who’ve suffered this nation’s diseased imagination. “[This] is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” wrote Baldwin in that same letter,” and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

But Eric Garner knew it. So did Jimmie Lee Jackson. And my friend and his friends know it as well. Their survival depends on them remembering the simple fact that this nation is uninterested – passionately, intentionally, and vengefully uninterested – in their survival.

Who killed Eric Garner? We did.

Juneteenth

In 1905 African Americans in Richmond celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the end of slavery.

I wrote the following for our church newsletter in anticipation of our Juneteenth Worship Service this coming Sunday. I offer it here for those who aren’t familiar with this important tradition with the hope that others will see the many theological implications of this commemoration of freedom.

On June 19th, 1865, the Union commander of the Department of Texas arrived in Galveston, Texas and went to a prominent home at the center of the city. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued more than two years earlier, but slaveholders in Texas had kept the news from the women, men, and children they enslaved. From the balcony the commander read out General Orders Number Three.

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are tree.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

Having been declared legally free years earlier, Texas’ African Americans now learned of their freedom. June 19th immediately became a day to commemorate freedom, and in the ensuing years Juneteenth became an essential holiday for a people whose freedom within a racist nation could never be taken for granted.

In a chapter about Juneteenth, historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner writes about the importance of Juneteenth to formerly enslaved people’s memory.

The powerfully subversive collective memory that former slaves and their descendants preserved found its way into public space almost every year, a reminder to the nation that African Americans, while sharing a common history with white southerners, did not bow to the icons of Confederate bellicosity or deny that freedom was immensely preferable to bondage.

The free women and men who left behind enslavers and captivity made their way in a nation that rarely recognized their freedom. They were met instead with a narrative that sanitized those who had kidnapped, exploited, and tortured them. They were told that their lives were better during slavery. They walked beneath hastily erected monuments to heroes of the Confederacy.

Within this white supremacist culture, Black people’s decision to publicly commemorate Juneteenth with parades, speeches, and special church services was a conscious act of resistance, a choice to develop a “powerfully subversive collective memory.” This memory would cut through racist retellings of history. It would tell the truth about African American dignity and freedom. It would put the dominant culture of white supremacy on notice- though it had grown powerful through theft and exploitation, it’s deceptive rationale had been exposed.

Celebrating Juneteenth was not only a bold declaration of freedom for the captives, its existence was a word of righteous judgment against white supremacy and all those who buttressed it’s malicious narrative and benefited from its deadly plunder.

Get Ethnic

When you say your ethnicity is American, there is no American ethnicity. You had to throw away your ethnicity to become American. That’s what it means. That’s what it means. You give up who you are to become American. And you can pretend that it’s OK because you’re white, when we give up who we are to become American we know that we’re dying from it. You’re dying from it too but you don’t know it necessarily. Get ethnic, you know.

Victor Lewis in The Color of Fear.

What Victor Lewis says about the conflation of nationality, ethnicity, and whiteness (beginning at 3:36 in the clip above) is one of his many insights in The Color of Fear, a documentary featuring men of different races and ethnic backgrounds speaking candidly about race and racism. Here he’s responding to another participant, a white man, who has asserted that he is simply an American, without any ethnic distinction, and who wonders why the men of color can’t, or won’t, say the same about themselves.

What Victor says about how a person becomes American is important for the way he shows how ethnic particularity is incompatible with being white. Ethnicity and cultural particularities have to be shed – thrown away – in order to attain the promises of whiteness and, just as importantly, to distance one’s self from racial blackness on the other end of our racial hierarchy. This is what it means to be American, something Victor’s antagonist hasn’t been able to see because he’s lived his entire life within the assumptions of American whiteness.

Just as important – perhaps more – is Victor’s claim that those, like himself, risk life itself in the pursuit of American-ness. Holding onto one’s particularities is a life-saving act within a society whose demand for assimilation may very well include your personal demise.

All of this points to a question which Victor alludes to with anger and fatigue when he says, “Get ethnic, you know.” The question, I think, goes something like this: What are white people to do after realizing our conflation of nationality, ethnicity, and race are neither an accurate reflection of reality nor a neutral state of being? Or: Can white people, having woken up to the fact of their whiteness, reclaim their particularities that were long ago thrown away?

This is what I take Victor to be responding to. “Get ethnic” is a demand to take steps away from the malicious generalities of racial whiteness to something more humane, like the uniqueness of ethnicity. This strategy is somewhat common among those who think carefully about race and whiteness. The idea is that if I, a white person, can get in touch with the long-forgotten aspects of my cultural and ethnic past, I have a better shot of moving beyond my default to whiteness- a default that isn’t neutral, which has warped my understanding of myself and others. Victor’s demand, though it sounds somewhat sarcastic, is actually quite gracious. He’s offering the white man an escape route from his whiteness

But can this actually work? For as often as I’ve heard white people encouraged to get in touch with our ethnicity – often by other thoughtful white people – I’ve never actually seen a white person stop being white by reverting back to their ethnicity or, more likely, multiple ethnic backgrounds. As good as it might be to maintain a connection to one’s history, that connection itself cannot provide a strong enough lived experience to counteract the racialized society through which we’re constantly feeling our way.

If I can be my own case study to make this point, what would it look like to reclaim my ethnic backgrounds? Which would I choose? German? Swedish? What about the parts of my family that spent generations in the American South? And which specific aspects of these different regions and cultures should I choose from? Would I have to learn each of the languages of my ancestors? Would I need to travel to each of these places and spend significant time living there?

It seems to me that any attempt by a white person to replace whiteness with a discarded past ends up a sort of strange act of reverse cultural appropriation.

This isn’t only a problem for those of us who currently perceive ourselves as white. As Victor points out, whiteness is attainable for some – not him – who are willing to shed generations of particularities. There are, for example, many American immigrants who today are perceived as foreign or other but whose children or grandchildren will have assimilated to whiteness. The price, of course, will be the intentional forgetting of what had been essential to their immigrant ancestors.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with holding onto or rediscovering parts of one’s ethnic or cultural uniqueness. We just shouldn’t confuse those acts as being enough to escape the constrictions of whiteness. That’s simply not how race has ever worked in America.

Is their an alternative, or are we left to understand that all those who can assimilate to white American-ness inevitably will? For me, this is the most important question. Another way to ask it: Is there anything strong enough to subvert the deforming power of race? Ethnicity, I’m claiming, is not strong enough, not as generations are shaped by this racialized society.

I think there is another possibility. It has to do with land and the way people are formed by place. I hope to explore this in a future book, though for now I’d best focus on finishing this first one

Young Leaders: Here Are 10 Ways to “Lead Up” for Reconciliation and Racial Justice

My most recent article for Missio Alliance has been posted.

The concept of leading up within organizations is common. Leading up, when done well, benefits the entire congregation, as the insights and innovations of youth are brought into conversation with the foresight and wisdom of older generations of godly leadership.
This dynamic is important when it comes to racial reconciliation and justice, particularly among majority-white churches. Given the inertia of racial privilege and the insulating impact of racial segregation, these churches benefit from the idealistic voices of younger leaders. If these women and men can leverage their influence up the leadership ranks with wisdom and humility, the entire church stands to grow in racial reconciliation and justice.

Read the rest on the Missio Alliance site.

The Color of Life

I recently reviewed Cara Meredith’s new book, The Color of Life, for The Englewood Review of Books.

On October 1, 1962, James Meredith enrolled in the University of Mississippi for his final year of college. What should have been a straightforward process involving applications and recommendations was anything but easy. Riots broke out on campus two nights before the arrival of the 29-year-old incoming senior. The possibility of the first African American student at Ole Miss was significant enough to draw concerted opposition from the governor of Mississippi and intervention by Robert Kennedy, then the U.S. Attorney General. Reflecting later, Meredith, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, remembered his time at the university as a war, one which he won by forcing the federal government to intervene to defend his civil rights. This was a war against white supremacy and Meredith was willing to lead the charge, no matter how violent the response.

It is impossible not to think about Meredith regularly while reading The Color of Life and not only because the author regularly weaves his story through her narrative. Cara Meredith is the daughter-in-law of the civil rights icon, married to his son James. Also, she is white.

Read the rest of the review at Englewood.

Children, Discipleship, and the Painful Way of Jesus

Is it a lost cause?This morning I wrapped up a draft chapter about children’s ministry for the book on discipleship and race I’m working on. I began my ministry serving children, but that’s been quite a few years ago so it was good to spend a couple of weeks reading and thinking deeply about the church’s kids. There were a number of books and articles that were helpful to me – Jennifer Harvey’s Raising White Kids is a treasure and Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and David Bjorlin have written a great book about incorporating children in worship – but a theme in Marva Dawn’s Is It a Lost Cause? is probably what will stick with me the most.

Dawn writes repeatedly about the ways American culture forms us to avoid pain. She says that “one of the glaring characteristics of contemporary U.S. culture is the insistence that life be comfortable, easy, entirely without any kind of suffering.” Though she doesn’t make this connection, it seems to me that this tendency is especially pronounced within white churches whose experiences of racial privilege become conflated with our discipleship to Jesus.

The expectation that we must avoid pain is, as Dawn points out, totally incompatible with Jesus’ own experience. “Jesus himself suffered in every way imaginable – not only the pain and shame of the cross, but also homelessness, foreign oppression, the need to escape terror and live as a refugee. He lived as one who had no place to lay his head.” And then, of course, there was the crucifixion.

What Dawn is pointing out – and what I hope to contextualize to the goal of discipling white children away from racism – is how our discipleship to Jesus will inevitably lead us through pain. We must invite our children and their parents to come to see their pain – to really see it – as an opportunity to meet the crucified Savior more intimately and to then follow him more closely on the way to redemption.